9 Tools for Effective Listening
Updated: Aug 11
Have you ever had an experience when someone shared something with you…and you just felt STUCK. You didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to respond?
Or on the flip-side, have you ever shared something sensitive or difficult with someone else, only to feel dismissed, misunderstood, or judged? Have you ever wished that you hadn’t shared at all?
These challenging conversations can be tricky to navigate, leaving us feeling frustrated at our own ability to respond, or feeling unsatisfied with others' attempts at supporting us.
If you've ever encountered either of these situations, this week's blog posts are designed for you. Today, we'll dig into active listening skills. Later this week, we'll dive into how to offer validation and support in moments of difficulty.
Effective Listening Skills
Effective listening sets the stage for offering validation and support. Here are some key components of active listening to incorporate into your conversations:
1. Location- A good location will provide a quiet, safe space that eliminates distractions and interruptions. It will offer the privacy that someone will need in order to feel comfortable opening up. Your location should allow both parties to be mentally present.
2. Body Language- Communicate through your physical cues that you are open to the conversation. Maintain eye contact, and nod your head to show that you are tracking the conversation. Allow your facial expressions to naturally shift to meet the speaker's content. Mirroring is the practice of mimicking someone else's body language: smiling when they smile, leaning back when they lean back, or looking concerned when they look concerned.
3. Verbal Cues- Ask clarifying questions. Saying things like, "uh-huh", "what did he say about that?" and "that's terrible!" show you are listening and facilitate talking.
4. Allow Silence- Some people feel very uncomfortable with silence, and feel the need to fill it immediately. Staying silent gives time and opportunity for the speaker to share extra information. It may feel odd initially, but you will be amazed how often more information emerges after a moment’s silence.
5. Reflecting- Reflect back what you are hearing. Use their words, summarize, and try to highlight emotions that you heard them express.
´“It sounds like…”
´"Wow, you seem really excited!"
´"That must have been hard."
´"Tell me if I've got this straight: you felt…when…"
6. Eliminate Judgment- Be aware of any pre-conceived notions you may have. Listen fully before jumping to conclusions. Your goal is to understand, not to judge what they're saying as right or wrong. Be open to new ideas of thinking.
7. Empathy- Empathy is the capacity to understand another person’s point of view. People who lack empathy will often say (to themselves, or out loud) "I just wouldn't feel that way if I were in their shoes." Rather than focusing on how you would respond differently in that particular situation, try to pinpoint the speaker's emotional experience. Call upon a time that you have felt a similar feeling, and connect over the emotion.
8. Notice Response- How is the speaker responding to you throughout the conversation? Is their body language staying open, or are they closing off? Are they vocalizing that they feel understood ("Yes, that's exactly how I feel!") or are they becoming defensive? Are they maintaining eye contact with you? Observe facial expressions and notice physical cues. Their response may provide information for you on how they're feeling, or how the conversation is going for them.
9. Ask Questions- Demonstrate that you've been listening by asking relevant questions.
“Can you share with me what you would like to talk about?”
“I’ve noticed you (fill in the blank)... Is there something going on?”
“Tell me more about that.”
“What has this experience been like for you?”
“How long have you felt this way?”
“Have you spoken with anyone else about how you are feeling?”
“When you have experienced challenging times in the past, what have you done? What has helped?”
What other components do you think are essential in creating an atmosphere of compassionate listening? What tools are easier for you to implement, and which ones do you struggle with? When you are on the speaking end, what helps you feel heard and understood?
We'd love to hear from you! Don't forget to come back later this week, when we'll explore how to offer validation and support in moments of difficulty.
Carrie Nicholes is a Maryland Board approved Licensed Certified Social Worker - Clinical (LCSW-C) and the founder of Cedar Counseling & Wellness. Recognized as one of the top therapists in Annapolis, she has a lifelong passion for teaching people tools to improve their lives.